Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Unlikely centre of attraction

Pope Benedict XVI has a mysterious but very genuine appeal for Gen Y. A woman who is one of Australia's leading theologians explains why in MercatorNet

MercatorNet: I noticed that Benedict's first encyclical contained a joke – not a great joke, to my mind, but it must have been a Papal first. You get the sense that Benedict wants to present Christianity as a joyful way of life. How is he doing that?

Rowland: Yes, this is true. When he was a young priest he was astonished to run across so many people who thought of Christianity as a set of rules and regulations which had to be followed in order to avoid eternal damnation. The word he uses for this is ‘moralism’. He often reminds people that Christianity is not primarily an ethical system, it is participation in the life of the Trinity, and in particular, an encounter with the Person of Christ. It is meant to be enriching and joyful. He doesn’t deny the possibility that some people might end up in hell, but he thinks it is rather neurotic to think of Christianity as an insurance policy against eternal damnation. He regards the various prohibitions in Jewish and Christian teaching as merely the flipside of the actualisation of a great 'yes’.

He therefore tries to focus on the positives, on what an authentic Christian spirituality can be. He often appeals to beautiful works of art and music as epiphanies of God’s glory and illustrations of what can be created by those who have faith. He wants people to fall in love with the beauty and truth and goodness of Christian Revelation, rather than living in fear of it. It’s as though proponents of moralism have confused Aslan with the White Witch. His focus on the works of Christian art and the beauty of the lives of Christian saints is his antidote to the moralist mentality.

MercatorNet: "The dictatorship of relativism" is a phrase coined by Benedict which has been widely repeated. But if you unpack it, it's not that clear. Relativism sounds anarchic, not tyrannical. What does he mean?

Rowland: When people hear the word ‘relativism’ they often think that it is a synonym for tolerance. They think that there is no dominant paradigm of anything and that it is a good thing that people tend to disagree about the truth and believe many different things. Contemporary cultural diversity, and in particular the diversity of moral frameworks, is regarded as a post-modern virtue.

However Benedict tries to demonstrate that when Christianity is rejected, social practices and the cultures which they foster are not theologically neutral. They carry within them an atheistic logic. The more pervasive this logic becomes the more our social life resembles a jungle with its survival of the fittest principles. In such cultures the weak and the poor are systematically hurt. Adolf Hitler understood this. He described Christianity and Judaism as religions designed to protect the weak from the strong. He thought this was a bad thing. Benedict thinks it is a really great thing. He is interested in the relationships between truth and love and what happens when truth is replaced by ideology and love is reduced to emotional drives.

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